Every journey through Central Asia is a quest for Samarkand. There may not be another place on earth with a sound so peculiarly tempting as this, so laden with remoteness, excitement and an aphrodisiac whiff of danger. Millions who have never strayed far from home have been captivated simply because the idea of Samarkand once attracted Goethe or Marlowe or Milton or Keats, or some other visionary who never saw it either, except through the prism of imagination. The most lustrous tribute of all was composed by a twentieth-century romantic who, for all the distinctly American cadences of his name, originated in Lewisham and finished up at the other end of an emphatically English spectrum, in Cheltenham. In the course of this progress he never got nearer to his vision than Beirut, where he was for a time a vice-consul, though not a very capable one; possibly because he was rather unhappy so far away from the mutual reassurances of London's literary set. But if he had written nothing else, that one inspired couplet alone would have secured James Elroy Flecker's immortality.
"Apples in the Snow" by Geoffrey Moorhouse
Navoi kochasi & park
Samarkand’s Russified downtown area tends to escape tourists’ radar, which is unfortunate because it’s quite un-Sovietised and charming. Gussied-up locals stroll along Navoi (formerly Leninskaya), a sight that would have Lenin rolling in his coffin.
Museum of Peace & Solidarity
The quirky International Museum of Peace & Solidarity (http://peace.museum.com; Abdurahmon Jomi 56; by appointment only) tends to move around a lot so check the website for the latest location. Curator Anatoly Ionesov speaks fluent Esperanto and has a remarkable collection of disarmament and environmental memorabilia. He has collected thousands of signatures, including some very famous ones, in the name of peace.
The Regional Studies Museum
The Regional Studies Museum (Abdurahmon Jomi 51; working hours 9am-5pm) occupies an old Jewish merchant’s house, and has a lavish wing devoted to Jewish history, with old photos of Samarkand’s once-prominent population of both European and Bukhara Jews. The rest of the museum contains the standard line-up of old ceramics, stuffed animals and historical displays.
The Hazrat-Hizr Mosque
Across the intersection from the Siob Bazaar, the Hazrat-Hizr Mosque (Tashkent kochasi; working hours 8am-6pm) occupies a hill on the fringes of Afrosiab. The 8th-century mosque that once stood here was burnt to the ground by Chinggis Khan in the 13th century and was not rebuilt until 1854. In the 1990s it was lovingly restored by a wealthy Bukharan and today it’s Samarkand’s most beautiful mosque, with a fine domed interior and views of Bibi-Khanym, Shah-i-Zinda and Afrosiab from the minaret. The ribbed aivan ceiling drips colour.
Museum of regional studies
51 Sharaf Rashidov St, open 9am-5pm.
This fascinating museum deep in the old Russian town inhabits the eclectic mansion of Bukharan Jewish millionaire Abraham Kolontarov, evicted by the Bolsheviks in 1917. His synagogue houses archaeological exhibits from Palaeolithic to Timurid, before a revealing collection of 19th century photographs-see the Registan crumbling yet bustling with traders. After tsarist colonization comes the rise of progressives like Social Democrat Morozov, whose illegal printing press published the revolutionary paper Samarkand from 1905-7. Most fitting is the display on the history of Samarkand's Jewish community. The highlight is a richly coloured reception hall decorated after Islamic fashion. The ganch carving on the balcony incorporates the Star of David and the Russian eagle, for Kolontarov hoped to entertain the tsar. Instead he got the Central Committee of the Uzbek Communist Party from 1925-30, forging the Sovietization of Uzbek life from this hybrid of feudal tradition. Sadly, the Soviet-era exhibitions have been banished to the vaults of the Cultural History Museum.
Sadriddin Ayni house museum
7b Registan St, (open daily 9am-5pm)
As Khamza is acclaimed the father of Soviet Uzbek literature, so Ayni (1878-1954) is his Tajik counterpart. Behind the white bust near Registan square is his Samarkand residence, restored with modest traditional furnishings, where the poet, writer and later president of Tajikistan described from personal experience the sufferings of the bad old days. Works on display in various languages include the novels Bukharan and Slaves, the inspiration of a mock-up house inside the Museum of Regional Studies.